h1>Book 2 - Stand Against The Night

Chapter 3 - Early Departure

Inspector Endewine “Enzo” Ooo sat alone in the back of the car for the brief drive from the Watson home in Belmont back to his temporary housing in Menlo Park, worried as he had never been in the over 200 years he had lived. His principal, Élowynn Carmischal, had somehow befriended the entire Watson family, and while giving Myron what he assumed had been a character scan, something must have gone terribly wrong. Myron was, thankfully, a healthy, strong young adult male example of the local blended humanity here on Home, with no objectionable character flaws or particularly unusual abilities. The only thing Myron should have noticed during Élowynn's examination was mild warmth, if even that, but he’d apparently perceived or experienced something vastly different. And just over an hour ago, when Enzo had tried to find out just what it was Myron had experienced, he had encountered something within Myron's mind that calmly examined him, and for whatever reason had effortlessly rendered him senseless for a few moments without Myron sensing any slightest hint of what might have caused it.

Obviously Myron was totally unaware of whatever this – thing – in his mind might be, and Enzo very much doubted Myron was hosting any non-physical energy being, except of course for his own spirit. Or soul, or whatever they called it here on Home. Obviously too, Myron’s mind was open to inspection concerning his visual memories, for he had read those of Myron’s initial encounter with Élowynn without difficulty. Enzo smiled to himself; while Myron was quite impressed by and appreciative of her physical appearance, he had remained a detailed and honest observer; his impression of her face and overall visible physique were almost as accurate as a photograph; there were no distortions such as were so common when a young man first met a young woman as physically attractive as she was. Enzo had also observed Myron’s behavior with Pilot Williams; there was no doubt at all they were a very committed couple, merely biding their time until that mutual commitment could properly be publicly and honorably declared and acted upon. It was a thoroughly pleasant change for Enzo to be dealing with healthy, ordinary people with such morals; he had every expectation of celebrating with them their marriage and the birth of several healthy children over the coming decades if not enturies. That was a thing his own people appeared to be losing; far too many of the increasingly scarce children of Éhofen never lived to see their first birthday.

Well, he had to complete his report of today’s activities and his observations, and get it sent off to his team on Home Station within the next hour or two. He felt very uncomfortable, even disgusted with himself, however: he had lied to the Watsons about there being no record of anything like his being thrown out of Myron’s mind. It could happen at any time when examining members of one particular regional segment of Éhofen’s population, as well as occasional outsiders fully accepted into that segment’s trust. He wondered what response his report would generate.

* * *

It was almost midnight as Alice turned away from the display screen in the family room in the Watson family’s apartment aboard Home Station. She had been using the data library aboard the station to do her own study of Éhofen history and culture, and had turned up some extremely alarming trends concerning their planetary population. After carefully correlating and charting those trends looking and hoping for errors, she had called on Élowynn, who had come to the apartment along with her official tutor, Captain Mariss Farschallen, another of the Éhofen on her team. Now Alice’s eyes were wide with distress, Mariss’ face was grim and drawn, and Élowynn's face was outwardly calm, except for tear tracks down both cheeks.

“Yes, Miss Watson, the figures you have assembled are all too accurate,” said Mariss, her voice strained but determined. “The published data are essentially correct, merely rounded off slightly to produce conveniently whole numbers. Those data have been available throughout the Confederation since the Éhofen society was founded, but it seems that until you looked at them, no one outside our planetary society has taken much interest in our situation.

“I cannot fault any one of our other planetary societies, or even the Confederation in general, for not noticing or volunteering anything to help us reverse this trend; historically we Éhofen have been far too conceited and arrogant for our own good, and it’s come back to bite us. Our mission here on Home Station is a completely private, rogue operation, not officially sanctioned by our planetary government; nonetheless any results we obtain from our research efforts are being quite openly received at the highest levels of our own research teams. Well, that’s what we’re being told; I can’t guarantee it’s actually the case. It may be our data are simply being ignored or discarded without examination; that sort of thing has happened before, more than once, and not exclusively on our world.

“I’m aware that sometimes the same sort of thing goes on with your societies on Home, both officially and otherwise: your Lester Thurow once said, ‘Facts are difficult to deal with when they conflict with theory. And before changing theories most human beings will spend long periods of time pretending that the facts don’t exist, hoping that the facts will magically go away, or denying that the facts are important. Only if the facts are very painful and very persistent will they deal with the fundamental inconsistencies in their world view.’

“For our people, the facts you have so carefully assembled and correctly understood do far more than merely conflict with the conceits of those who traditionally have great public influence in our society. They totally contradict such, and are supported by the weight of accurately documented if wholly unwelcome trends in our population and our viability as one branch of humanity. In our arrogance, on our planet we’ve totally rejected the booster technology available throughout the rest of the Confederation, and as the popular notions of what physical characteristics are desirable have slowly shifted away from our early ‘ideal’ over the years, we have quite carelessly allowed numerous recessive characteristics to assume ascendency in our genome. There is also an active biological agent involved, which will be described in some detail later. Not only have we shrunk from our intended size, which used to be comparable to that of my Lady and your brother, or slightly larger, but in the last few thousand years we’ve also mostly lost the extra strength in our muscles and bones, as well as our physical endurance. While we’ve developed various unusual talents, such as some you ascribe to mediums, seers and the like, we’re also seeing more mental disabilities, and the results also include various physical deformities and about every form of reproductive dysfunction possible, including drastically lowered fertility rates in both our men and our women. Worst, though, is our infant mortality rate – I didn’t know that rate offhand, but knew it was considerably over 50%.

“We’re a dying race, and unless something is done to reverse that trend immediately, we’re about to become history.”

Élowynn abruptly stood up from where she had been seated, moving about the room as she spoke. “Alice, my dear sister by other parents, this is why my little group has come here to this station. Your planet is the birthplace and cradle of humanity, and while it is a place that at present I literally cannot survive approaching much closer than this station’s orbit at opposition, everything our research plus that of Prime has produced indicates that the necessary genes to restore our people are already present in your various peoples, just as they are among the other varieties of humanity scattered across our Confederation.

“The necessary changes to our genome are tiny! Merely shifting or restoring 147 specific links within our nuclear DNA sequence, and but 18 links in the MTDNA sequence, reverses well over three thousand years of our deterioration, and restores us to what we must be in order to survive. That restoration will happen in our future children if either or both of the parents have received one of the Confederation’s standard boosters tailored specifically for us, though we would also prefer to see two of our minor characteristics made extremely dominant for a time in order to minimize the emotional and cultural trauma the children of unions with non-Éhofen would cause if they did not appear to be fully our own.

“If our younger children today receive a proper analysis, they can also greatly benefit from receiving such boosters. Please consider Mariss and me – she is a fully-grown, mature woman of some 300-odd of your years, while I have seen but 19 of them. We both received our boosters on the same day, just over four years ago, and I have grown more than a foot and a half since that day; I am now as tall as I will ever be, though I still have quite a bit of muscle tissue to develop. She has gained almost nine inches in height, and through training and regular exercise has been able to develop her musculature and endurance far more than I have yet done. My entire research team here on Home Station has experienced enormous improvements in health, vigor, size, weight, strength and stamina, and many also in brain function. And we had all been considered very smart people in unusually good health to begin with!

“While the boosters alone cannot eliminate existing gross physical deformities in our current mature population, the restored, or improved, genetic characteristics would be transmitted to future children, and so our excessive infant mortality rates would soon drop to Confederation normal – that is, less than one in ten thousand. The chances of the proposed changes failing to have only and exactly the desired effect on succeeding generations, or having unexpected, negative results are as close to zero as can be attained by any known technology, but my race is a stubborn one indeed! Be that as it may, I shall need to present our findings, together with Prime’s assessments of the task and the variables to be controlled, to my – um, family’s specialists, before anyone can be expected to believe any part of it.

“Working together with Prime I have used both individual and averages of the anonymous genetic signatures of everyone ever stationed aboard or visiting this station, as well as every one of Home’s population ever fully profiled, some 129.7 million individuals over 3,714 of your years, as reference data in this study, plus of course my own, but feel I must ask you an enormous favor, Alice: Will you allow me to use this station’s records of your complete genome in my presentation, identified as yours, together with photographs of you, to further illustrate that the necessary characteristics do in fact exist? Statistical data are always far too easy to manipulate, as I’m sure you’re more than just slightly aware, but there’s nothing quite so convincing as living evidence of a theory’s validity to illustrate that the data are not merely statistical, but can walk up to you, say hello, and carry on an intelligent, meaningful conversation.”

“Ellie,” said Alice, “you sure can take forever to ask a simple question! Yes! – Of course you can use my full profile and identify me while you do it. Probably my parents’, too, but we’ll have to ask them later, maybe tomorrow. Hell, if it’ll help I’ll go with you and help you do the presentation. Maybe kick a few denials out of the room at the same time, if that might help. You’ll probably get an even bigger ‘yes’ from Myron, if I still know my brother. And if it means that much just to us, maybe we could convince Carole to come along and be a part of your dog-and-pony show too. After all, it’s not as if we’d be required to produce viable offspring right on the spot. That would be slightly impossible, anyway.”

They all shared a laugh over that one, but Élowynn’s eyes narrowed in thought for a few moments. “On the spot, in full view of all and sundry, no, of course not. However, eventually at least one of us will have to validate the theory by actually bearing normal, healthy Éhofen babies on my world, fathered by individuals both Éhofen and, more controversially, non-Éhofen. The latter to quell the fears that any such cross-breeding will dilute our traditional visible marks of differentiation – our ear and eye shape. I know, those are extremely trivial things, but they are matters almost of legend; many of my more, um, tradition-minded people would violently reject any recognizable blends as mongrels at best, not even human at worst – and so inexcusably deny them at least half their heritage. This I cannot allow, which is why for a time any blended children must appear to be entirely of our people – although as I’m sure you’ve noticed, we in this room, Mariss and I, appear rather different than the founders of our race intended, which images you have seen. You and your brother are somewhat closer to that initial visual appearance, ears excepted, and while to me our pointy ears are, as your brother would say, merely cosmetic variations of the basic human theme, to some of my people rounded ears on their children would be more than a little, um, jarring.”

“Ellie – please don’t forget that any such crossbreed would have to have your genes for long life, else there might be a repeat of what happened six times on Home when such blended children died of old age at what was considered by your people to be just beyond adolescence! We don’t want to so stress your women like that again, there being so few of you who can still bear children.”

Élowynn walked over to Alice and put both arms around her. “Thank you, Alice. No, I cannot forget those women; none of us ever can, and the long-life genes are included in the numbers I just mentioned. However, and here I will meet truly vicious opposition, I am willing to consider whether it might be best at some point to leave that particular characteristic behind us, and use the ‘do or die’ method of life extension as found in the rest of the Confederation. I’m sorry if I sound utterly callous on this, but perhaps that way we might eventually get rid of some of the most incredible deadwood from our society one can imagine – not people unable to work, but individuals who actively refuse to do anything other than mooch off our society.

“You know, after using this language more than half the time for nearly five months I’ve come to really like it! You have so many ways of saying things, with so many ways to shade your meanings – not that most of your people ever use even a significant fraction of its capabilities! It’s an enormous, sprawling, undisciplined, raucous nightmare of a collection of words and concepts from all over your planet, but I like it! And if one really follows its traditional rules, such as they are, I doubt there’s any language offering a wider range of expression, application and even precision; it has my language, with all its deliberately built-in levels of shading and implication, beat all hollow.”

“Are you sure you’re not just saying that to make me feel better, Ellie? I mean, when I come to visit you and your team, now that I can get direct education through Prime, I use whichever dialect of your language you’re using at the moment, to the point I actually think in it without effort, and even though I’ve tried to explore its limitations I haven’t encountered many.”

“Ah, but that’s just it, don't you see?” said Ellie. “You've found some in it already, but the only reason you ever encountered limitations in your own language before you had your supplemental English instruction from Prime was that you simply didn’t know all the recognized words and concepts. Consider: you learned my entire language and all its modes including all its rules in one session with Prime, because it’s a compact, designed language. By comparison, it took me two sessions just to absorb the entire vocabulary and basic grammar of your language, and three more to gain mastery of all the modes of its inflection and use, plus two history sessions just to gain the necessary societal referents for the various major dialects. Alice, I’ll never be a decent poet in your language; my mind simply doesn’t work that way, but for anything else I’m fully competent it its use. Well, as long as I keep fair discipline on my thinking and don’t go all scatterbrained, that is. I can appreciate poetry in your language; even a proper understanding of Shakespeare requires only a fair knowledge of the form of the language in use at his time and location, plus a reasonable grasp of the then-current societal patterns, trends, attitudes, and what was regarded as history when and where he lived, and of course those were covered in the lessons. The same goes with any of the other truly exceptional authors using your language – Chaucer, Milton, others right up through today. But for me to compose good poetry? No, that’s not in my life. Low doggerel, yes, perhaps.

“I will admit I’ve only learned a very few of your languages, you have more unique languages in regular use just on your one planet than there are in the rest of the Confederation plus our nearest fifty neighboring societies combined! The Confederation had only three basic languages, plus of course their various dialects, before your version of English started spreading like wildfire. Even some of our non-human neighbors have started using it in preference to some of their own more traditional languages, it has that much utility and range as a verbal language. And most of that expansion has happened in only the past 85 of your years! I think some form of it may quite literally outlast your star.

“But to get back to our reason for being here this evening, you do know that usually you’ve been using the formal Court version of our language when you’ve come to our little area of the station, don’t you?”

Alice considered what she knew of the language, its common, intimate, formal and Court modes and their variants, and nodded. “Yes, of course I know that. It was your choice to use that form the first time I came to visit you, so it seemed disrespectful and presumptuous for me to do otherwise. I assumed there was good reason for your choice, and of course wouldn’t dream of questioning my host in her choice of language or the form thereof used in her own quarters when I understood and could use it so well –” She stopped, realizing she’d just been using the academic variant of the common form of the Éhofen language, because that was what Ellie had used in the question she had just asked.

Mariss chuckled, smiling at Alice. “Do you know,” she asked in English, “you have a Ravensward accent while using that form? Well, actually a bit in every form of our language you speak, but mostly noticeable then? It’s absolutely genuine, and couldn’t possibly be any better – I could almost swear you’ve spent all your life within two miles of Ravensward Rock in The Havens, to the southeast. My Lady,” she said, switching to Éhofen formal Court mode, “please, was it your intent that Miss Watson be regarded as a prominent scholar?”

Ellie, using English, said “Yes, because she is all of that, though not yet so recognized on Home. She might as well get used to such respect; she’s earning it. Not only for her work here on commercial fusion power, which should eventually be well received on Home, but also when she appears on our world in light of her independent and respectful study of our current difficulties. Her brother Myron has been given the same education regarding our history and our dialects; it will be interesting to hear what he has done with it. And right on time, I expect Inspector Ooo’s report should be here; computer, please route his report concerning Myron to the display in this room.”

The computer's respose to Ellie’s command was obviously not what she expected: “Miss Carmischal, Inspector Ooo is still delivering his report, live. Do you wish to observe, or participate?”

“Full participation, now.”

The display changed from the grim population trend lines that had been up for the entire time since Ellie and Mariss had entered the Watson’s apartment, to show Inspector Ooo, a concerned expression on his face, talking. “...has successfully completed his physical examination in partial fulfillment of the requirements for his scheduled Arctic survival class. Good evening, My Lady, I was not anticipating your live participation in this report. Captain Farschallen, hello – and good evening, Miss Watson. My Lady, shall I continue, or re-start my report?”

“Please merely continue,” said Ellie.

“Very well, My Lady. Mr. Watson’s gross physique has changed significantly; he has been following a rigorous physical conditioning discipline designed to greatly increase his endurance, static and dynamic strength, and his cardiovascular function; details from his examination accompany this report as sub-files. In my estimation, he is probably far better prepared, physically, mentally, and emotionally, for that class than is any other candidate this year.

“It appears he has fully integrated his augmented boosters, to the effect that physically he is significantly stronger and has greater endurance, as well as lower reaction times, than the original Éhofen optimal baseline; also his conditioning is significantly better than that of the professional wildlife guard contracted for the on-planet phase of the class.

“I accompanied Pilot Williams to the Watson residence in Belmont, California, this morning. The Pilot awoke Mr. Watson; his movements did not betray any stiffness, nor did he display any disorientation following her awakening him, merely pleased surprise she has arrived earlier than expected. Their relationship is quite obviously still intact and fully committed; I can foresee no problems in their immediate future.

“My Lady, I may have failed you most grievously: In random conversation, Pilot Williams mentioned you seem to be hesitant to examine either Miss Watson or herself, and that you had cited a concern for what they might feel. Mr. Watson began to describe an extremely unusual feeling he experienced during your examination of him, but I stopped his verbal description and attempted to examine him directly.

“My Lady – I could view his visual impression of your initial encounter quite normally, but when I attempted to access his memory of what he experienced, I was, ah – I was briefly rendered unconscious. Mr. Watson appears to be completely unaware of why this might be.

“It is my duty to ask, My Lady – did you bond with Mr. Watson during the time of your examination of him nearly six months ago, there upon Home Station?”

Alice and Mariss glanced at each other, blindsided by and aghast at what the Inspector had just asked and implied. Their eyes focused on Élowynn’s face, searching for any reaction as she calmly said, “No, Inspector, I did not. To my surprise, that condition existed long before our ancestors were taken off Home; the Pilot and I have been bonded to him concurrently in at least three separate lifetimes there, and will be again elsewhere; we three are constants in one another’s existence. You are not derelict in your duties, Inspector Ooo, nor are you failing me as my adult guardian. Indeed, had you not questioned me on that subject, you would have failed most grievously indeed.

“At some future date, I need to arrange a mutual Reveal among the three of us, that we shall all know what we have been and are now, but as I am involved I am prohibited from conducting that process or examining either the Pilot or, for different reasons, Miss Watson. However, it now appears we need to make a brief visit to our world; certain facts and trends impacting all of Éhofen have been brought to light within the past two hours, and my physical presence to deliver a direct report on our mission here is required.

“Your schedule as well as that of Mr. Watson and Pilot Williams is now changed. You shall meet my personal shuttle tomorrow evening at your normal location, for priority transport to rendezvous near this station, thence direct to Éhofen. Your revised schedule shall be forwarded to you within one hour of this moment.

“Out.” The video display reverted to the population trend lines it had been presenting before Élowynn had received the Inspector’s report.

“Alice, as you know, there are occasions when I seem to have the ability to read or view the history, the character, and sometimes the future of certain people and events as if I were observing those details laid out in a panoramic timeline, complete with visuals, sensations, and more. It is not necessarily an ability I would wish off on another, however there are times it is most useful – and other times when it is most distressing!

“You and I have been biological sisters; we have been adopted or step-sisters; we have been sisters-in-law, or the cultural equivalent of all those things, but very long ago. I may not examine you as I did your brother because of that fact, even as I would never have examined his character and motives when I did had I sensed that at some time in the distant past we had permanently bonded. What I felt six months ago was danger to you, but sensing that you were somehow close to me I never stopped to consider whether your brother might have been closer still, the condition being rare, and of course neither of you being of my people. He and I have been, are now, and always will be bonded, beyond the most distant past or future I can see, together with Pilot Williams – whom I must learn to address by her given name.

“However, you are alive now because of my carelessness, or sense of urgency perhaps, I am unfit to have an opinion on that matter. You still have two and a half years, approximately, before your would-be killer makes a fatal mistake following the commission of some particularly heinous crime, but because that one doesn’t involve you I can’t yet see what it will be or who will be involved. His mistake eliminates himself alone, though causing serious damage at a remote rural location I can’t yet identify. Serious, as in something in his presence ignites, burning the building in which he will be at that time. He will die of smoke inhalation and be burned almost entirely to powder; perhaps his dental records might provide positive identification. It’s not a large building; I have the impression of a cellar beneath what you regard as a small ‘log cabin’ type of building, heat supplied by an oil-burning heater of some sort, though that will not be the source of the fire. I sense granite boulders and damp soil atop granite bedrock around the building, but no snow. The building is surrounded by some large variety of pine trees; that individual either does not know or consciously think of their type. He already knows the place, but I don't think he owns it; there is a sense of temporary if somewhat frequent use. I’m sorry, but other than for the date I don’t have any better visualization than that.

“At any rate, please gather all your research data related to the situation concerning my people; immediately upon your brother and Pilot Williams’ return we shall proceed directly to my world; your independent study is. . .”

Her eyes momentarily lost focus, then her face showed surprise. “Does your brother know about this study of yours?”

Taken aback by the abrupt change in subject matter, Alice could only shake her head, saying “He shouldn’t; I haven’t mentioned it at all. Why?”

“I just realized that he’s been doing his own research into my people. Prime, may I have some of your time, please?”

The easily-recognized voice of Home Station Prime, the artificial intelligence largely tasked with running Home Station, being a data repository, library, research tool, security monitor, plus thousands of other duties aboard Home Station, responded at once. “How may I be of assistance, Miss Carmischal? Hello, Miss Watson, Captain Farschallen.”

“Prime, please fully authenticate my identity and that of those in this apartment before we proceed.”

Prime responded. “You are who you are, Miss Carmischal of Éhofen, presently in the family room of the Watson family apartment, there by invitation of Miss Watson, and in company with Captain Farschallen. You are the only three humans in that apartment, and in anticipation of your likely next input, I have set up a privacy barrier surrounding the apartment, plus another surrounding the room in which you are now located.”

“Thank you, Prime. I must request that immediately following this conversation you release and start provisioning my vessel for use; to assign its Shuttle Two for an unscheduled transit to Home and return here; to move its Shuttle One to a convenient airlock of this station for my own use together with personnel yet to be determined to board that vessel; and to prepare that vessel to rendezvous with both shuttles for an immediate minimum-time transit to the planet Éhofen, final destination synchronous orbit at the longitude of High Pass City. Inspector Ooo, Mr. Myron Watson and Pilot Carole Williams will board my Shuttle Two at the local base on Home that Mr. Watson knows; Miss Watson, Captain Farschallen, two as yet unidentified additional members of my staff, and I will be aboard my vessel as passengers when Shuttle Two approaches this station roughly thirty-eight hours from this moment. Luggage and provisioning will be such as to permit us two-way transit plus a one-month stay upon my planet; please prepare suitable wardrobe for Mr. and Miss Watson, plus for Pilot Williams, prior to our departure. I understand Mr. Watson’s physical measurements have changed significantly since last he was here. We will be meeting with – my family, and some others.

“Operation Yellow Submarine is hereby invoked.”

“Understood, your vessel is activating now. Its number two shuttle will be in orbit above Home within one day of this moment; its number one shuttle will be in a pressurized repair bay aboard this station within six hours from now, for your convenient embarkation. Previously designated mission-specific cargo and personnel will be aboard. Miss Watson, there are specific wardrobe items required for your physical presence upon the planet Éhofen; they will be in your stateroom aboard Inúrien, Miss Carmischal’s family vessel, when you board, as will be your brother’s and Pilot Williams’ Éhofen-specific wardrobe.”

“Prime,” said Ellie, “can you tell me if Mr. Watson is currently wearing his communicator, and if so, whether he is in a location and situation where it is appropriate for me to contact him?”

“One moment, please.”

Ellie turned to Alice. “I’ve not spoken to or in any other way communicated with your brother since the evening of your family’s formal reception banquet here; I’ve been terrified of revealing too much. But this is far too important a situation to let my personal trepidations interfere with my duties to my people; please wish me well.

“Prime, I’m prepared for this contact if you clear it.”

“Miss Carmischal, Mr. Watson is now in the family home, in conversation with Pilot Williams and his mother. There is no one else in the house, nor should Colonel Watson be returning within two hours of this moment. Contact is limited to sound only.”

“Very well, thank you. Please connect me to Mr. Watson.”

A brief moment of silence, then from the overhead speakers came Myron’s voice. “Hello, Élowynn? It’s so good to speak with you again, how are you? I trust my sister is well; normally she calls or e-mails me. What may I do for you, please?”

Élowynn's face and posture showed only iron self-control as she spoke. “Mr. Watson, yes, this is Élowynn. Your sister is fine, she’s right here with me and Captain Farschallen, in the family room of your family’s apartment here on Home Station. There’s been an unexpected change of plans, though, and I really need you to please put your communicator in speaker mode.”

“Of course, Élowynn,” came Myron's slightly surprised response. “Here we go. Mom, Carole, we have Élowynn, Sis, and Captain Farschallen on the line, they’re in our apartment. It seems there’s something up; she’s never contacted me before. Okay, we’re all here.”

“Hello, Professor,” said Élowynn. “Hello, Carole, please accept my sincerest apologies for intruding on you all like this, but I must let you know there’s been an extremely unexpected change of schedule up here. Myron and Carole – you're going to have to depart tomorrow night instead of Saturday night as originally planned. I most sincerely hope this doesn’t create too great an imposition on you, but it’s truly urgent.

“Myron, I apologize for my sensitivity and intrusion, but I have a very strong feeling that you’ve been doing some research into my people’s history, and have found something particularly distressing to you. If so, please let me tell you that your sister has come to the same conclusions I think you just have – that’s why we’re all gathered in your family’s apartment here. Will you please tell me, in a few words, the nature of the results you’ve discovered?”

“Élowynn, I’m sorry, but I, well –” Myron’s voice suddenly showed intense strain, concern, and unwillingness to go farther. However, Carole’s voice suddenly came through, ragged, on the edge of crying: “Ellie! I’m so sorry, I had no idea! Myron’s off school for the summer, and he was doing research into your people and ran into what he couldn’t possibly expect. We – we were just going over his results, and I couldn’t find any flaws in them, nor could local AI. Myron says your population figures show an abrupt extinction trend! How can that be, Ellie? What’s happened? Is there anything that can be done? Do you need us there?”

“Yes, we do, Carole, we truly do. There will be a shuttle at your local facility tomorrow night, somewhere around 11:30 your time, I think. Would you and Myron please go aboard? I’m so sorry to take anything away from your time there, but yes, we – no, I desperately need you two up here! And Myron – please bring every bit of your research! Please do this, not for me, but for my people! Carole, could you help him with this, please?

“Right now I need you two! Oh, and Inspector Ooo will get his own summons, but there will be room for you all. It’s, um, not a scheduled flight.”

Myron’s voice came through, stronger though still troubled. “Élowynn, we’ll be waiting for it; we’ll go aboard immediately it shows up. You’ve never called me before, so I assume this is beyond merely urgent. We’ll be there just as soon as we can.”

“Thank you, Myron, Carole. Please give my respects to Professor Watson. Again, I’m sorry to have to ask this of you. I love you all! Ellie, out.”

* * *

“... Ellie, out,” said the communicator Myron was holding out so Carole and Emily could hear it. He looked first at Carole, then his Mom.

“Out,” he said, clearing his end of the contact, then returning the card to his shirt pocket.

Emily was obviously concerned, but recovered first. “Élowynn sounds like a very worried and concerned young lady, but I think she really cares about us, and means everything she said about regretting the change in plans. Well, since you’re not due up the hill until fairly late tomorrow evening, we can still go to the Harbor House tomorrow for dinner, so nothing’s changed until after that. We’d been hoping to go down to the Monterey Aquarium on Saturday, and there’s a nice restaurant out on the pier, but for now our local place will just have to do. And we’ll still have had two days with you here. It would be nice to see you more often, Carole, but that’s how life is with military or similar duty, so we must make do with what we can have.”

Carole hesitated, but then went to Emily and gave her a hug. “Thank you for being so understanding and flexible about this, and I promise that on my side we’ll try to be better behaved next time we’re all together.”

“Please don’t fret about it,” said Emily. “This wasn’t your doing; you bear no responsibility for how things developed – and if this really does concern the plight of Élowynn’s people, it makes good sense to report back to the station as soon as possible. I’d think you should leave immediately, but if tomorrow night is the soonest you can get started, then we’ll just enjoy what time we have until then. At lease everyone is safe and well; we just have to do whatever we can to make sure that condition continues for her people as well.”

* * *

The pilot of the shuttle meeting Myron and Carole was one of the Éhofen security men Myron had met at the reception and dinner aboard Home Station back in December. His name was Denys V’ral, his rank equivalent to Lieutenant First Class. They greeted one another with warm handshakes all around. Myron commented on the shape of the shuttle; it was not the “saucer” shape to which he was accustomed, but was about one and a half times as long, and a little wider and taller, than a railroad passenger car, and was far too large to fit inside the hangar; it was resting on its landing gear in the open area behind the hangar.

“Mr. Watson, this shuttle is of one of the later designs from my world. It’s unique even in that, however, because the ship to which it mates belongs to our Lady’s family; it seems there’s some issue that couldn’t await the normal, scheduled shuttle due here tomorrow evening.

“Oh, before we get into that, may I ask what’s in the two heavy boxes, and in the long case?”

“I’m scheduled to take the Arctic survival training course,” said Myron. “I was told that next time I went out to the station, I was to bring my own shotgun, plus 100 rounds of commercial ammunition and 500 new, empty cartridge cases for it, and I’ve brought along a couple of thousand wads and primers, as well as a reloading set and cleaning kit, but no shot or propellant. There are also three boxes of 20 rifle rounds each for my time in Alaska later this summer. The ammo, press and primers for the shotgun are in the boxes; my Dad’s old tactical shotgun and my bolt-action hunting rifle are in the hard-shell case.”

“Thank you; we’ll put the boxes with the primers and ammunition in anti-static enclosures in stowage. Did you think to bring a survival knife too?”

"Yes, I bought a good Ka-Bar at a surplus store; the sharpening stone’s in the sheath for the knife. It’s in the box with the empty shells and the primers. My instructions didn’t specify what knife, so I opted for the matte black finish on the blade – no point inadvertently signaling Mars with it; the Sun gets kind of low on the horizon where we’ll be taking our field test.”

“Good reasoning,” said Denys, before greeting Carole, who was curious concerning the shuttle’s controls and capabilities. The three of them stowed Myron’s and Carole’s luggage, including Myron’s laptop computer and power supply, in the shuttle, then while awaiting Inspector Ooo’s arrival they crowded the control position, discussing and debating various aspects of shuttle and control design. It was a friendly, informative discussion all around, and broke off only when the Inspector was delivered to the hangar. He walked to the shuttle carrying only a single suitcase; his driver had simply dropped him off outside. He was three minutes late.

This shuttle’s exterior was an elongated, roughly trapezoidal cross section with slightly convex surfaces and rounded corners; the pressurized passenger compartment inside that was a cylinder with an inside diameter of just over 13 feet, the deck almost a quarter of the way up from the bottom of the cylinder. A gently arched overhead reached about eight and a half feet above the deck. “This shuttle fits into a recess in my Lady’s ship, where it aligns with securing clamps, power and life-support connectors, and a personnel transfer lock, requiring minimal intrusion on the pressurized interior volume of the ship,” said Denys. “It also has much greater range than the standard personnel shuttles here, plus a restroom, shower, laundry, and limited galley facilities aft. The standard shuttles out here are intended only for flights of less than two hours’ duration, while this one is intended for flights of up to a bit more than three days’ duration on standard provisions, or on-planet excursions for up to a week with a full passenger load. Your personnel shuttles cannot conveniently make the hop from Home out to the station, but this one can do that quite easily, even at the low velocities to which we’re limited in this system – it will take us about four hours to get to Home Station once we lift.”

Myron was closely examining the interior appointments of the shuttle. The seats were all fully adjustable, powered swivel recliners, one on each side of the cabin per row, four to a side, plus pilot’s and co-pilot’s seats forward, separated from the passenger compartment by a thick panel with hinged doors of a semi-opaque dark gray material, mounted with substantial hinges but without a latch to keep them closed; obviously they were more for politeness than for securing the doors against entry from the passenger compartment. All seats were quite robust and luxurious; rich upholstery on each one was color-coordinated with obviously expensive carpeting; the colors made Myron think of a forest motif. Each chair had a privacy curtain that could be drawn to screen it off from the rest of the compartment, as well as a wide monitor screen about 33 inches diagonal measure mounted to the side wall nearest it. The monitors were mounted on arms so they could be positioned in front of the chairs, perpendicular to the side walls. A single restroom including a shower was located aft to the right, opposite a door that opened into a compact galley, or kitchenette, with yet another, if slightly less luxurious, chair. The only difference between passenger and flight crew seats was that those for the passengers were all swivel recliners, while those for the flight crew (except for the galley chair) could not be fully reclined. There were also four individual bunks aft of the restroom. Exquisitely grained and finished wood trim and paneling were judiciously used throughout the cabin.

“Is this a diplomatic shuttle?” he asked Denys, as the inner entry hatch slid closed behind the Inspector.

“No, this is one of two private shuttles for my Lady’s family ship. I’m not at liberty to identify that family; you’ll find that out later from another source. Our diplomatic shuttles are far more lavishly appointed and somewhat larger, but her family has traditionally appreciated a relatively low-key, more comfortable and functional interior for its own use. Now, some of the private shuttles used by some of the more flamboyantly wealthy families are in my opinion quite garish, both inside and out, I think I can call up some images for you – but her family has no use for that sort of thing, preferring top quality without need to impress anyone.”

“I like it,” said Myron. “It's obviously a working shuttle, but has refined taste and understated class about it. Whoever and whatever Élowynn's family turns out to be, this doesn’t show their buyer to be ostentatious in private, and to me that’s a decided plus.” Myron didn’t see the Inspector's momentary expression of shocked outrage, nor Carole’s bemused smile.

“Well, we're all buttoned up,” said Denys, “unless there’s anything any of us have forgotten, let’s get started.” He switched to the Éhofen language. “Shuttle, we will be using American Standard English for this flight, please confirm.”

In a quiet, pleasant but entirely businesslike woman’s voice, the shuttle said, “Understood, using American English until further notice. Good evening Mr. Watson, Pilot Williams, and Inspector Ooo. We are instructed to transport you with all speed to rendezvous near Home Station. Let us have a safe transit; we are starting our flight now. View glasses are available in your left armrest, while individual seat, lighting, and comfort controls are in the right. Safety harnesses are not required for this flight, but if anyone wishes to sleep while aboard I request you loosely fasten your seat belt. Anticipated flight time is about three hours, fifty-two minutes, give or take a few.”

Myron and Carole put on their view glasses in time to see the grounds around the hangar receding ever more rapidly astern, the shuttle having already pitched up to point vertically into the nighttime sky. Looking around, he could recognize many of the visible constellations, and after a few seconds he saw the sky begin to rotate slowly about the shuttle’s long axis; it was obvious the shuttle was doing a continuous slow roll. Looking back to the almost entirely dark disk of the Earth, he watched as it steadily shrank in apparent size.

Walking over to Myron, Denys said “I gather your parents had a far more spectacular first flight in a shuttle; they watched as they met up with a ship still in low orbit on the lighted side of your planet. We’re just heading straight out, staying in your planet’s shadow cone for a while, then we’ll go around the planet for a bit before heading straight for the station, but we have to go far enough out to avoid all your satellites and junk. If we came too close to any of that, we might influence their orbits with our drives, so we go out a little beyond your Moon’s orbit first, then kind of loop around your planet a bit and really pour it on. All that takes nearly an hour; it’s too bad we’re almost two-thirds of the way around the Sun from the station, or we could get there in a lot less time. My Lady did say she wanted us there just as soon as we could manage it, but also that we had to leave no earlier than 11:30 PM your time to get the maximum benefit from your planet’s shadow cone. Somebody’s coaching her really well; that’s something very few people would have thought of.”

Myron looked at Carole. “That has your fingerprints all over it, Carole – are you the guilty party?”

Carole looked down, her mouth just beginning to show a tiny smile. “Um, well – yes, I guess I am, sort of. We were having a conversation one day, and the idea of a stealthy departure from a planet came up. We developed this very scenario – well, actually it was her idea, we just refined the trajectory a bit to reflect local satellites, radiation belts, the Moon, plus of course the destination – you know; little stuff. When she really applies herself, Ellie is one scary-quick learner, just like your sister.”

“That Sis is, or was last time I was around her enough to notice. But for now, I’m going to try to get some sleep. The station’s time is eight hours ahead of where we just left, and I want to be at least half-way awake when we get there.” He got up, walked over to her recliner to give her a hug and light kiss, then went back to his own chair, reclined it fully, put on his seat belt, turned off its lights, and in seconds was sound asleep, his view glasses in his lap.

Carole rose and went over to his chair, watching him fondly for a few moments before pulling his privacy curtain closed. Returning to her own chair, she pulled her own curtain closed before following his example. Tomorrow should be a long day.